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Shakespeare's Treatment of Love and Marriage

From Shakespeare's treatment of love & marriage and other essays by C. H. Herford. London, T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd.

The Shakesperean world is impressed, as a whole, with an unmistakable joy in healthy living. This tells habitually as a pervading spirit, a contagious temper, not as a creed put forward, or an example set up. It is as clear in the presentment of Falstaff or lago, as of Horatio or Imogen. And nowhere is it clearer than in his handling of the relations between men and women. For here Shakespeare's preferences and repugnances are unusually transparent; what pleased him in the ways of lovers and wedded folks he drew again and again, and what repelled him he rarely and only for special reasons drew at all. Criminal love, of any kind, holds a quite subordinate place in his art; and, on the other hand, if ideal figures are to be found there, it is among his devoted, passionate, but arch and joyous women.

It is thus possible to lay down a Shakesperean norm or ideal type of love-relations. It is most distinct in the mature Comedies, where he is shaping his image of life with serene freedom; but also in the Tragedies, where a Portia or a Desdemona innocently perishes in the web of death. Even in the Histories it occasionally asserts itself (as in Richard II's devoted queen, historically a mere child) against the stress of recorded fact.

In the earlier Comedies it is approached through various stages of erratic or imperfect forms. And both in Comedy and Tragedy he makes use, though not largely, of other than the 'normal' love for definitely comic or tragic ends.

The present study will follow the plan thus indicated. The first section defines the 'norm.' The second describes the kinds of appeal and effect, in Comedy and Tragedy, to which the drama of 'normal' love lent itself. The third traces the gradual approach to the norm in the early Comedies. The fourth and fifth sections, finally, discuss the treatment, in Comedy and Tragedy, of Love-types other than the norm.

The Shakesperean norm of love, 1 thus understood, may be described somewhat as follows. Love is a passion, kindling heart, brain, and senses alike in natural and happy proportions; ardent but not sensual, tender but not sentimental, pure but not ascetic, moral but not puritanic, joyous but not frivolous, mirthful and witty but not cynical. His lovers look forward to marriage as a matter of course, and they neither anticipate its rights nor turn their affections elsewhere. They commonly love at first sight and once for all. Love-relations which do not contemplate marriage occur rarely and in subordination to other dramatic purposes. Tragedy like that of Gretchen does not attract him. Romeo's amour with Rosalind is a mere foil to his greater passion, Cassio's with Bianca merely a mesh in the network of lago's intrigue; Claudio's with Juliet is the indispensable condition of the plot. The course of love rarely runs smooth; but rival suitors proposed by parents are quietly resisted or merrily abused, never, even by the gentlest, accepted.

Crude young girls like Hermia, delicate-minded women like Desdemona and Imogen, the rapturous Juliet and the homely Anne Page, the discreet Silvia and the naive Miranda, are all at one on this point. And they all carry the day. The dramatically powerful situations which arise from forced marriage -- as when Ford's Penthea (The Broken Heart) or Corneille's Chimene (Le Cid) is torn by the conflict between love and honour -- lie, like this conflict in general, outside Shakespeare's chosen field. And with this security of possession his loving women combine a capacity for mirth and jest not usual in the dramatic representation of passion. Rosalind is more intimately Shakesperean than Juliet.

Married life, as Shakespeare habitually represents it, is the counterpart, mutatis mutandis, of his representation of unmarried lovers. His husbands and wives have less of youthful abandon; they rarely speak of love, and still more rarely with lyric ardour, or coruscations of poetic wit. But they are no less true. The immense field of dramatic motives based upon infringements of marriage, so fertile in the hands of his successors, and in most other schools of drama, did not attract Shakespeare, and he touched it only occasionally and for particular purposes. Heroines like Fletcher's Evadne (A Maid's Tragedy), who marries a nominal husband to screen her guilty relations with the King, or Webster's Vittoria Corombona (The White Devil), who conspires with her lover to murder her husband, or Chapman's Tamyra (Bussy d'Ambois), whose husband kills her lover in her chamber; even Hey wood's erring wife, whom her husband elects to 'kill with kindness,' are definitely un-Shakesperean.


The norm of love lent itself both to comic and to tragic situation, but only within somewhat narrow limits. The richness, depth and constancy of the passion precluded a whole world of comic effects. It precluded the comedy of the coquette and the prude, of the affected gallant and the cynical roue, of the calf-lover and the doting husband; the comedy of the fantastic tricks played by love under the obsession of pride, self-interest, meticulous scruple, or superstition. Into this field Shakespeare made brilliant incursions, but it hardly engaged his rarest powers, and to large parts of it his 'universal' genius remained strange. We have only to recall, among a crowd of other examples, Moreto's Diana (El Desden con el Desden), Moliere's Alceste and Celimene, Congreve's Millamant, in Shakespeare's century; or, in the modern novel, a long line of figures from Jane Austen to The Egoist and Ibsen's Love's Comedy to recognize that Shakespeare, with all the beauty, wit and charm of his work, touched only the fringes of the Comedy of love.

The normal love, not being itself ridiculous, could thus yield material for the comic spirit only through some fact or situation external to it. It may be brought before us only in ludicrous parody. We laugh at the 'true love' of Pyramus and Thisbe in the 'tedious brief' play of the Athenian artisans, or at that of Phoebe and Silvius, because Shakespeare is chaffing the literary pastoral of his day. Hamlet's love, itself moving, even tragic, becomes a source of comedy in the solemn analysis of Polonius. Or again, the source of fun lies in the wit and humour of the lovers themselves. Some of them, like Rosalind and Beatrice, virtually create and sustain the wit-fraught atmosphere of the play single-handed. But Shakespeare habitually heightens this source of fun by some piquancy of situation almost always one arising from delusion, particularly through confusion of identity. It is a mark of the easy-going habits of his art in comedy that he never threw aside this rather elementary device, though subjecting it, no doubt, to successive refinements which become palpable enough when we pass from the Two Gentlemen to Cymbeline.

But his genius made perennially delightful even the crude forms of confusion which create grotesque infatuations like those of Titania, Malvolio, Phoebe, Olivia. More refined, and yet more delightful, are the confusions which bring true and destined lovers together, like the arch make-believe courtship with which Rosalind's wit amuses and consoles her womanhood, and that other which liberates the natural congeniality of Beatrice and Benedict from their 'merry war.' In cases like these, Shakespeare's humour has the richer and finer effluence which derives from a hidden ground of passion or tears. Rosalind's wit is that of a woman many fathoms deep in love; Beatrice's ears tingle with remorse at the tale of Benedick's secret attachment; Viola's gallant bravado to Olivia conceals her own unspoken maiden love. And Portia crowns her home-coming to her husband and her splendid service to his friend with the madcap jest of the rings. Such jesting is in Shakespeare a part of the language of love; and like its serious or lyrical speech, is addressed with predilection to love's object.

Again, the normal love offered in itself equally little promise of tragedy. No deformed or morbid passion, but the healthy and natural self-fulfilment of man and woman, calling heart and wit and senses alike into vigorous play, it provided equally little hold for the criminal erotics in which most of Shakespeare's contemporaries sought the tragic thrill, and for the bitter disenchantment and emotional decay which generate the subtle tragedy of Anna Karenina or Modern Love. Tragic these healthy lovers of themselves will never become; they have to be led into the realm of pity and fear, as into that of laughter and mirth, by the incitement or the onthrust of alien forces. Here, too, Shakespeare's habitual instrument is delusion; only now it is not the delusion which deftly entangles and pleasantly infatuates, but that which horribly perplexes and rends apart. The blindness of Claudio, of Othello, of Posthumus, of Leontes, is provoked by circumstances of very various cogency, but in each case it wrecks a love relation in which we are allowed to see no flaw. The situation of innocent, slandered, heart-stricken womanhood clearly appealed strongly to him, and against his wont he repeated it again and again.

Even after leaving the stage, he was allured by the likeness of the story of Henry VIII's slandered queen to his Hermione, to reopen the magic 'book' he had 'drowned.' He was no sentimentalist; his pathos is never morbid; but it is in imagining souls of texture fine and pure enough to be wrought upon to the most piteous extreme by slander from the man they love, that Shakespeare found most of his loveliest and most authentically Shakesperean characters of women. Hermione and Hero, Desdemona and Imogen, are to his graver art what Rosalind and Beatrice and Portia are to his comedy.

But while the tragic issue is directly provoked by the alien intervention, it is clear that almost all its tragic quality springs, not from the operations of lachimo or lago, but from the wonderful presentment of the love they wreck. Shakespeare's supreme command of pity springs from his exalted faith in love. The poet of the Sonnets is implicit in the poet of Othello. And the dramas themselves abound in lyric outbursts, often hardly called for by the situation, in which his ideal of wedded love is uttered with the poignant insight of one who was probably far from having achieved or observed it himself. One need but think of France's reply to Burgundy (King Lear, I, i. 241):
Love's not love
When it is mingled with regards that stand
Aloof from the entire point.
Or of Imogen, blind to all but the path of light and air that divides her from Milford Haven:
I see before me, man; nor here, nor here,
Nor what ensues, but have a fog in them,
That I cannot look through.
Even Adriana, in the Comedy of Errors, expresses the unity of married love with an intensity which we expect neither from this bustling bourgeoise nor in this early play:
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too; (II, ii. 127.)
an utterance which in its simple pathos anticipates the agonized cry of Othello the most thrilling expression in Shakespeare of the meaning of wedded unity:
But there, where I have garnered up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up: to be discarded thence!
The husband in these cases, it is true, neither forgives nor condones, and Shakespeare (unlike Heywood) gives no hint that he would have dissented from the traditional ethics on which Othello and Posthumus and Leontes acted, had their wives in fact been guilty. The wives, on the other hand, encounter the husband's unjust suspicions, or brutal slanders, without a thought of revenge or reprisal. Desdemona, Imogen, Hermione, alike beautifully fulfil the ideal of love presented in the great sonnet:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
In one drama only did he represent ideal love brought to a tragic doom without a hint of inner severance. The wedded unity of Romeo and Juliet is absolute from their first meeting to their last embrace; it encounters only the blind onset of outer and irrelevant events; nothing touches their rapturous faith in one another. This earliest of the authentic tragedies thus represents, in comparison with its successors, only an elementary order of tragic experience; set beside Othello, it appears to be not a tragedy of love, but love's triumphal hymn. Yet it is only in this sense immature. If Shakespeare had not yet fathomed the depths of human misery, he understood completely the exaltation of passion, and Romeo and Juliet, though it gives few glimpses beyond the horizons of his early world, remains the consummate flower of his poetry of ideal love.


The beauty and insight of Shakespeare's finest portrayals of the comedy and the tragedy of love were not reached at once. His conception of love If was still, at the opening of his career, relatively slight and superficial; his mastery of technique was equally incomplete. The early plays accordingly abound with scenes and situations where from either cause or both the dramatic treatment of love is not yet in the full sense Shakesperean. It will suffice in this sketch to specify two types of each.

The young Shakespeare, as is well known, showed a marked leaning to two apparently incongruous kinds of dramatic device paradox and symmetry. In the riotous consciousness of power he loved to take up the challenge of outrageous situations, to set himself dramaturgical problems, which he solves by compelling us to admit that the impossible might have happened in the way he shows. A shrew to be 'tamed' into a model wife. A widow following her murdered father's coffin, to be wooed, there and then, and won, by his murderer. A girl of humble birth, in love with a young noble who scorns her, to set herself, notwithstanding, to win him, and to succeed. Paradoxical feats like these were foreign to the profound normality under whatever romantic disguise of Shakespeare's mature art. Richard and Petruchio and Helen carry into the problems of love-making the enterprising audacity of the young Shakespeare in the problems of art. But the audacity of the young Shakespeare showed itself in another way. His so-called taste for 'symmetry' had nothing in common with the classical canons of balance and order. It was nearer akin to the boyish humour of mimicry. If he found a pair of indistinguishable twins producing amusing confusion in a Roman play, he capped them with a second pair, to produce confusion worse confounded in the English Comedy of Errors. And so with love. Navarre (in Love's Labour's Lost) and his three lords, like the four horses of an antique quadriga, go through the same adventure side by side. All four have forsworn the sight of women; all four fall in love, not promiscuously but in order of rank, with the French princess and her ladies, whose numbers, by good fortune, precisely go round.

But love itself is not, as yet, drawn with any power. Berowne's magnificent account of its attributes and effects (IV, iii., mainly re-written in 1597) is not borne out by any representation of it in the play. The 'taffeta phrases' and 'silken terms precise,' the pointed sallies and punning repartees, full of a hard crackling gaiety, neither express passion nor suggest, like the joyous quips of the later Rosalind, that passion is lurking behind. We are spectators of a rather protracted flirtation, a 'way of love' which was to occupy a minimal place in his later drama. Armado's dramatically unimportant seduction of Jaquenetta is likewise a symptom of his 'apprentice' phase.

Equally immature is the representation of fickle love in the Two Gentlemen. Proteus is Shakespeare's only essay in the Don Juan type, but it falls far short in psychological and dramatic force of his portrait of the faithful Julia. Proteus's speeches often rhetorical analyses of his situation rather than dramatic expressions of it. His threat to outrage Sylvia (V, iv. 58) is, as he naively declares, ''gainst the nature of love,' and it clashed no less violently with Shakespeare's rendering of the passion elsewhere. Even the apparent fickleness produced by delusion flourishes only in the magical world of the young Shakespeare's Midsummer Dream.

The inconstancy of the Athenian lovers attests only the potency of the faery juice. No doubt Shakespeare's denouements, even in some of the maturest comedies, show his lovers accepting with a singular facility a fate in love other than that they had chosen. Olivia accepts Sebastian in default of Viola, and the Duke Viola when Olivia is out of the question. Still less defensible artistically is Isabel's renunciation of the convent to marry the Duke. But these acquiescences, even if they were not touched with the frequent perfunctoriness of Shakespeare's finales, are not to be classed with deliberate inconstancy.

A second mark of unripeness in the conception of love as extravagant magnanimity. This, like other kinds of unnatural virtue, was a part of the heritage from mediaeval romance, fortified with Roman legend. The antique exaltation of friendship concurred with the Germanic absoluteness of faithful devotion, and for the mediaeval mind the most convincing way of attesting this was by the surrender of a mistress. In the tenth book of the Decamerone Boccaccio collects the most admired examples of 'things done generously and magnificently,' chiefly in matters of love; one of them is the tale of Tito and Gisippo (Decamerone, X, 8), where, Tito having fallen in love with his friend's bride, Gisippo 'generously' resigns to him all but the name of husband. The story, quoted in Sir T. Elyot's Governour (1531), was well known in Elizabethan England, and fell in with the fantastical world of Fletcher's Romanticism. But the humanity and veracity of the mature Shakespeare rejected these extravagances as the cognate genius of the mature Chaucer had done before him.

Chaucer lived to mock at the legendary magnanimity of Griselda, so devoutly related in the Clerkes Tale; and it was only the young Shakespeare who could have made Valentine's astounding offer, in the Two Gentlemen, to resign 'all his rights' in his bride to the 'friend' from whose offer of violence he has only a moment before rescued her (V, vi. 83). 2

A second variety of extravagant magnanimity was the recurring situation of the girl, who, deserted by her lover, follows him in disguise, takes service as his page, and in that capacity is employed by him to further his suit to a new mistress. This motive was of the purest romantic lineage; having first won vogue in Europe through Montemayor's Diana (1558, trans. 1588), and in England by Sidney's Arcadia (1581, publ. 1590). On the London stage it profited by the special piquancy attaching to the roles of girls in masculine disguise when the actors were boys, and its blend of audacious adventure and devoted self-sacrifice gave the Elizabethan auditor precisely the kind of composite thrill he loved.

For some forms of sex-confusion Shakespeare throughout his career retained an unmistakable liking. But the finer instincts of his ripening art gradually restricted its scope. Viola, in the original story (Bandello, II, 36) follows a faithless lover; in Twelfth Night, wrecked on the Illyrian coast, she disguises herself merely for safety, takes service with the Duke as a complete stranger, and only subsequently falls in love with him. The change indicates with precision Shakespeare's attitude at this date (c. 1600) to this type of situation. He was still quite ready to exploit the rather elementary comedy arising out of sex-confusion -- to paint with gusto Viola's embarrassments as the object of Olivia's passion and Sir Andrew's challenge, or the brilliant pranks of Rosalind in a like position. But he would not now approach these situations by the romantic avenue of a love-sick woman's pursuit. In his latest plays he shows disrelish even for the delightful fun evolved from sex-confusion in Twelfth Night and As you like it.

The adventures of Imogen in disguise are purely pathetic. Pisanio indeed proposes, and Imogen agrees, to follow her husband to Italy in disguise; but this opening is significantly not followed up. (Cymbeline, III, iv. 150 f.)

But in the Two Gentlemen, the entire motive without curtailment or qualification is presented in the adventures of Julia. Abandoned by Proteus, she follows him in disguise, takes service as his page, and is employed as go-between in his new courtship of Silvia. To the young Shakespeare the situation was still wholly congenial, and he availed himself of its opportunities of pathos without reserve, though with incomplete power. His riper technique, fortified probably by a closer acquaintance with the spirited and high-bred womanhood of the Portias and Rosalinds of his time, withdrew his interest, perhaps his belief, from the risky psychology of Julia's self-assertion and self-abnegation. Like other strained situations suggested by 'golden tongued romance,' it fell away before the consolidated experience, the genial worldliness, the poetized normality, of his riper art.

The case of another devoted pursuer of an unwilling man is more complicated, and calls for closer examination. All's Well That Ends Well has already been referred to as an example of the paradox-plotting congenial to the young Shakespeare. But Helena's passion and her sacrifices for the man whose love she seeks ally her also with the Julia type. Yet internal evidence leaves no doubt that this play, though originally written, and therefore planned, in the early nineties, was revised by Shakespeare at a date not far remote from that of Hamlet. If the paradox-subject was the apprentice's eager choice, the artist at the height of his power did not reject its challenge. In the original story (Decamerone, III, 9) the flavour of paradox was even more pronounced. Like the other tales of the Third Day, it describes one who alcuna cosa molto da lui desiderata con industria acquistasse.

Giletta of Narbonne succeeds in effect by sheer audacity and enterprise; and Boccaccio's readers doubtless enjoyed this inversion of the usual roles, where a masterful girl captures a reluctant man. Shakespeare's earlier version was probably the lost Love's Labour's Won mentioned by Meres, and the title emphasizes the element of resolute and unhesitating pursuit which marks the original, and was probably more pronounced in the earlier than in the revised play.

For it is plain that precisely the resolute pursuit of a resisting man was uncongenial to Shakespeare's riper art, because unnatural in the type of high-bred and refined womanhood whose ways in love reflected his ideal of healthy love-making. Helena, as the heroine and predominant figure of the play, had to be of the sisterhood of Portia and Rosalind and Beatrice and Viola. But if the plot forbad this? And clearly, the most hazardous incident of all (the substitution of Helen for Diana) could not be eliminated without breaking up the plot altogether. Why then take up the old play at all? Plainly there must have been in the fundamental theme something which Shakespeare was unwilling to lose as well as something that he would have wished away.

This something that attracted him was evidently Helen's clear-sighted resolution in itself; in this she is, in fact, a true sister of Portia and Rosalind, though her seriousness is not, like theirs, irradiated with laughter. Could she be visibly endowed with this grace of clear sight and will, yet at the same time be rather drawn on by circumstances to the final conquest of Bertram than herself the active agent in it? Somewhat thus must the problem have presented itself to Shakespeare. Did he completely solve it? I think not. But we can to some extent follow his procedure.

Strength and delicacy are from the first blended in Helen. Her famous lines (I, i. 231):
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven.
strike the keynote of her resolute temper. Yet her love, a maiden's idolatry, is content without possession; with her, 'Dian' is 'both herself and love' (I, iii. 218). If she forms plans for showing her merit and thus commending herself in Bertram's eyes, she takes no step herself; it is the Countess who, having discovered her love, welcomes her prospective daughter-in-law and sends her with all proper convoy to court to 'cure the king.' Her choosing of Bertram (II, iii. 109) is an offer of life-long service, not the appropriation of a well-won prize. And when Bertram bluntly declares that he 'cannot love her nor will strive to do it,' she proposes, turning to the king, to withdraw her whole claim:
That you are well restored, my lord, I'm glad;
Let the rest go.
The crucial situation, however, for her (and for Shakespeare) begins only with Bertram's definite departure, and scornful intimation of the conditions on which he will be her husband. Giletta, on receiving the corresponding message, had made up her mind at once what to do; had arranged her affairs and set out on the soi-disant pilgrimage to Florence, where Beltramo she knows will be found. Helena's procedure is less clear. Two distinct courses were open to her. She might, like Giletta, make direct for Bertram at Florence, under the pretext of going on a pilgrimage. Or she might finally surrender the pursuit of a husband who had decisively shown he did not love her, as she had already proposed to do when he had only declared that he did not.

The second was unquestionably more in keeping with Helen's character. But the first was more in keeping with the plot. It might well be that Shakespeare's Helen would hesitate between the two. But it is in any case probable that Shakespeare hesitated, and that the marks of his hesitation have not been effaced from the text.

On reading Bertram's letter she is, like Imogen when she reads Posthumus's, for the moment overwhelmed. 'This is a dreadful sentence.' She hardly speaks, and gives no hint to the Countess of her thoughts. But when she is alone she breaks out in the great passionate monologue of renunciation (III, ii. 102 f.) . . .
No, come thou home, Rousillon,
Whence honour but of danger wins a scar,
As oft it loses all: I will be gone;
My being here it is that holds thee hence:
Shall I stay here to do't? no, no, although
The air of paradise did fan the house,
And angels office' d all: I will be gone. . . .
This can only imply, since she is alone, that she sincerely proposes to give up all claim to her nominal husband. Nevertheless, in Scene iv., the Countess is seen reading a letter from Helen which declares that she has gone as a pilgrim to Saint Jaques, in Florence. She begs the Countess, it is true, to summon Bertram home to live there in peace while she in the far land does penance for her 'ambitious love.' Was this a subterfuge, like Giletta's, or was it her sincere intention as we should infer from the previous monologue? If it is the first, Helena comes nearer to the crafty duplicity of Giletta than anywhere else in the play, and this towards the Countess who has just indignantly renounced her stubborn son, and taken Helena to her heart as her sole child (III, ii. 71). But if it is the second, we cannot but ask why then, if Helena means bona fide to avoid Bertram and leave him free, she chooses for her pilgrimage precisely the one place in the world in which she knows he will be found? And this awkward question remains unanswered, notwithstanding the evident effort to allow us to believe in Helena's innocent good faith.

Giletta, on arriving at Florence, takes up her abode at an inn, 'eager to hear news of her lord.' Helena arrives, apparently concerned only to learn the way to St. Jacques, and where the pilgrims bound thither found lodging. Then Bertram is mentioned; she learns that he is known, and has made advances to Diana; presently he passes by, and now at length Helen deliberately and unhesitatingly takes measures to fulfil his 'impossible' conditions. Helena's conduct appears, then, to fluctuate, without clear explanation, between resolute pursuit and dignified renunciation.

There can be no doubt that the former type of procedure represents the earlier, the latter the riper, mind of Shakespeare, in the treatment of love. The letter to the Countess, of III, iv., is, like all his verse-letters, early work; the great preceding monologue is in the richly imaginative phrase and daringly yet harmoniously moulded verse of the Hamlet period. He set out to fit a eharaeter based upon a nobler type of love into a plot based upon a grosser; and even he could not effect this without some straining of the stuff, and here and there a palpable rent.


What I have called the norm of love must thus rank high among the determining forces of his mature drama. Obscured and disguised at the outset by crude conceptions and immature technique, it gradually grew clear, and provided the background of passion, faith, and truth out of which, aided by misunderstandings, pleasant or grave, his most delightful comedy and his most poignant tragedy were evolved. And other types of love -- whether they made for comedy or tragedy, held a relatively slight place in his work. In particular he concerns himself only in a quite exceptional or incidental way either with the high comedy of love or with guilty passion.

His comedy of love outside the norm for the most part resembles burlesque. In other words, the 'ways of love' which he treats as comic material are not plausible or subtle approximations to romantic passion, but ludicrously absurd counterfeits of it. The fun is brilliant, but it does not strike deep; it provokes the loud laugh rather than the 'slim feasting smile.' It commonly springs from some grotesque infatuation; as when, in Bottom and Titania, human grossness and fairy fantasticality are brought together for the eternal joy of gods and men. Ridicule of such infatuations was soon to find its peculiar home in the Humour comedy of the later nineties, in the prosaic satirical air of which the romantic or normal love had no place at all. It is hardly an accident that the plays in which this Shakesperean comedy of grotesque infatuation in love runs riot were produced when the Humour comedy was at the height of its vogue, or that they bear clear traces of its influence.

Twelfth Night is far from being as a whole a Comedy of Humours. Viola's maiden passion is touched with a charm wholly alien to it. The Duke, with his opal and taffeta mind, a self-pleasing artist in emotion, who feeds his languid passion on music, and does his wooing by proxy, is perhaps Shakespeare's only serious study of love as a humour. Of still more laughable futility is the love-making of Malvolio, with his smiles and yellow stockings, and Sir Andrew, who gets no further than learning an assortment of fine words for an interview that never comes off a comic counterpart to lago's miserable dupe, Roderigo. The Merry Wives also shows the influence of the Humour comedy. Slender is a true 'country-gull,' nowhere more obviously than in his wooing, or preparations to woo, sweet Anne Page. The adventures of Falstaff in pursuit of Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page are brilliantly executed examples of a kind of comic effect which Shakespeare's riper art elsewhere disdained. Officially required to represent 'Falstaff in love,' he turned the laugh against the lover by representing his ill-luck in pursuing the only 'way of love' he knew.


Finally, as Shakespeare recognized for purposes of comedy certain types of love-making alien to the ideal norm, so too, more rarely, for the purposes of tragedy. Ideal love, as has been seen, occurs constantly in the tragedies even where it does not directly affect or participate in the tragic issues; as with France and Cordelia, Brutus and Portia, Richard II and his queen, Coriolanus and Virgilia. But the more penetrating sense of evil which becomes apparent in his tragic period contributed to draw more prominently into the sphere of his art the disastrous aspects of the relations between men and women. That he refrained from exploiting in drama the more sinister forms of passion, we have seen. But in some of his ripest and greatest work he drew love with implications, and under conditions, which sharply mark it off from the 'marriage of true minds.' It is unstable, or lawless, or grounded on illusion; and thus not merely succumbs easily to assault from without, but directly breeds and fosters tragic ruin within. Even the union of Othello and Desdemona, in every other respect a marriage of true minds' which reaches for a moment (ii. 1) incomparable intensity and beauty, is rendered fatally precarious by their ignorance of each other.

Love, like everything else which grows in Hamlet's Denmark, is touched with insidious disease. Ophelia is wonderfully imagined in keeping with the tragic atmosphere, an exquisite but fragile flower of the unweeded garden where evil things run to seed and good things wither. And her love, wholly un-Shakesperean as it is, and therefore irritating to many readers, bears within it the seed of tragedy both for Hamlet and herself. It is 'a power girt round with weakness.' She never falters in faithful devotion to him; but the 'sweet bells,' her father has told her, are 'jangled,' and she consents both to be the instrument of the king and Polonius's 'lawful espial' (which may, please heaven, restore him), and to deny his access and return his gifts. She stands alone among Shakesperean heroines in renouncing her love at a father's bidding.

We seem to approach for once the heroic renunciations of love in the name of principle or country which impress us in Corneille and Racine in Polyeucte or Berenice. But no halo of sublime self-sacrifice surrounds Ophelia's renunciation, for her or for us. It is merely a piteous surrender, which breaks her heart, overthrows her delicately poised reason, and removes one of the last supports of Hamlet's trust in goodness.

On the other hand, Shakespeare occasionally found his tragic love in violent and lawless passion. We need not dwell on episodic incidents like the rivalry in the love of Edmund which crowns and closes the criminal careers of Goneril and Regan. In this case there was little scope for the undoing of soul which is the habitual theme of Shakesperean tragedy. But in Measure for Measure an inrush of sensual passion instantly shatters the imposing but loosely built edifice of Angelo's morality, and though the play was meant for comedy, and the tragic point is thus (rather clumsily) blunted or broken off, the spiritual undoing of him is discernible enough. Without a thought of resistance he proceeds to act out the whole merciless catalogue of vices which the poet of sonnet cxxix saw attending upon lust. 3 At the same time it is clear that Isabel, with her cold austerity, is an even greater anomaly among Shakespeare's women.

Their purity is not that of a negative abstinence, but of whole-hearted devotion to the man they love. In Cressida he drew a kind of tragic love as lawless as Angelo's and as sensual, but insidious and seductive instead of violent. Compared with the profligate women of Restoration Comedy she has a certain girlish air of grace and innocence. If she betrays Troilus for Diomede it is with a sigh and a half wistful glance back at the deserted lover: 'Troilus, farewell! one eye yet looks on thee' (V, ii. 107). Though classed by the Folio editors hesitatingly it would seem with the Tragedies, this play seems to set at nought the whole scheme of Shakesperean tragedy. Neither Troilus nor Cressida has the grandeur without which ruin is not sublime; and their love has not the heroic intensity of those (like Heine's Asra) welche sterben wenn sie lieben. The only imposing figures are those of the great captains of the Greek and Trojan camps, who are but slightly concerned with their love. Nevertheless, the whole effect of the play is tragic, or falls short of tragedy only because the gloom is more unrelieved. There are no colossal disasters, plots, crimes, or suffering, nor yet the stormy splendour which agony beats out of the souls of Othello, Hamlet, Antony, or Lear, and which leaves us at the close rather exultant than depressed. This tragedy is purely depressing because it strikes less deep; the harms do not rend and shatter, but secretly undermine and insidiously frustrate. Cressida is a symbol of the love which may kindle valour for a moment, but in the end saps heroism and romance at once, and which strikes the magnificent champions of Homeric story themselves with a futility more tragic than death, the futility hinted savagely in the Horatian Troiani cunnus teterrima belli Causa, and superbly in Faustus's great apologue to 'the face that launched the thousand ships.'

In Antony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, a type of love not in its origin loftier or purer than that of Troilus and Cressida is seen dominating two souls of magnificent compass and daemonic force. Antony is held by his serpent of old Nile in the grip of a passion which insolently tramples on moral and institutional bonds, private and public alike; which brings the lovers to ruin and to death; and which yet invests their fall with a splendour beside which the triumph of their conqueror appears cold and mean. There is no conflict, no weighing of love and empire, as great alternatives, against each other, in the manner of Corneille; nor does Shakespeare take sides with either; he neither reprobates Antony, like Plutarch, for sacrificing duty to love, nor glorifies him, like the author of the Restoration drama, All for Love, or the World Well Lost; still less does he seek to strike a balance between these views. He is no ethical theorist trying exactly to measure right or wrong, but a great poet whose comprehensive soul had room, together, for many kinds of excellence incompatible in the experience of ordinary men. That Antony's passion for Cleopatra not only ruins his colossal power in the state but saps his mental and moral strength is made as mercilessly clear in Shakespeare as in Plutarch. He is 'the noble ruin of her magic.' But it is equally clear that this passion enlarges and enriches his emotional life; in a sense other than that intended by the sober Enobarbus,
A diminution in our captain's brain
Restores his heart; (III, xiii, 198)
and enlarged feeling opens up new regions of imagination and lifts him to unapproached heights of poetry, as in the unarming-scene with Eros (IV, xiv.) and the farewell speeches to Cleopatra ('I am dying, Egypt, dying,' IV, xv.). And Cleopatra too, in the 'infinite variety' of her moods, has momentary flickerings of genuine devotion of which she was before incapable. Momentary only, it is true; the egoist, the actress, the coquette, are only fitfully overcome; in her dying speech itself the accent of them all is heard. The 'baser elements' are not expelled, but the nobler 'fire and air' to which she dreams that she is resolved, gleam for a fitful instant in her cry 'Husband, I come' to yield a moment later to jealous alarm lest Lear (sic) should have Antony's kiss, and vindictive satisfaction at having outwitted Caesar.

Shakespeare's poetry takes account of so vast a number of other things, of so many other ways of living and aspects of life, that we hardly think even of the author of Romeo and Juliet as in any special sense the poet of Love. Nor is he, if we mean by this that he thinks or speaks of Love in the transcendent way of Dante, or Lucretius, or Spenser, or Shelley. Love with them is part of the vital frame of the universe. Lucretius (in spite of his atomist creed) saw it pervading ' all that moves below the gliding stars, the sea and its ships, the earth and its flocks and flowers.' Dante saw it as the force which not only draws men and women together, but 'moves the Sun and the other stars.' Spenser saw it as 'the Lord of all the world by right, that rules all creatures by his powerful saw.' Shelley saw it as the sustaining force blindly woven through the web of Being. For such heights of poetic metaphysic we do not look in Shakespeare. He is one of the greatest of poets, and his poetry has less almost than any other the semblance of myth and dream; its staple is the humanity we know, its basis the ground we tread; what we call the prose world, far from being excluded, is genially taken in. And precisely where he is greatest, in the sublime ruin of the tragedies, love between the sexes has on the whole a subordinate place, and is there is most often fraught, as we have seen, with disaster and frustration. So it seemed to Keats when he turned from 'golden-tongued Romance' to 'burn through' the strife of 'damnation with impassioned clay' in King Lear.

Shakespeare certainly did not, so far as we can judge, regard sexual love (like some moderns) as either the clue to human life or as in any way related to the structure of the universe. But if, instead of these abstract questions, we ask whether any poet has united in a like degree veracious appreciation of love in its existing conditions with apprehension of all its ideal possibilities, we shall not dispute Shakespeare's place among the foremost of the poets of love.

1. The characteristics of this norm are well set forth by Wetz, Shakespeare, ch. v.

2. The conflict of friendship with love was in general treated in England with a livelier sense of the power of love than in Italy. Boccaccio's Palemone and Arcita, rivals for the hand of Emilia, courteously debate their claims (Teseide, V, 86, 89 f.) ; Chaucer makes them fight in grim earnest. Spenser in the spirit of the Renascence makes friendship an ideal virtue, but exposes it to more legitimate trials, as where the Squire of low degree repels the proffered favours of his friend's bride. (Faerie Queen, iv. 9, 2.)

3. 'Perjured, murderous, . . . savage, extreme . . . rude, cruel, not to trust.'

How to cite this article:
Herford, C. H. Shakespeare's treatment of love & marriage and other essays. London: T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., 1921. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < >.

Themes in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Although love is the overarching theme of the sonnets, there are three specific underlying themes: (1) the brevity of life, (2) the transience of beauty, and (3) the trappings of desire. The first two of these underlying themes are the focus of the early sonnets addressed to the young man (in particular Sonnets 1-17) where the poet argues that having children to carry on one's beauty is the only way to conquer the ravages of time. In the middle sonnets of the young man sequence the poet tries to immortalize the young man through his own poetry (the most famous examples being Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 55). Read on...


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Time and Death

"Both Time and Death, we have seen, are personified in the Sonnets, are thought of and spoken of as churlish and malevolent entities. But they had been personified in Shakespeare's imagination with equal vividness and with the same kind of abhorrence before the Sonnets were written. There is a long apostrophe to Death in the Venus and Adonis, and there is a longer apostrophe to Time in the Lucrece, showing that in 1593 and 1594, or in Shakespeare's thirtieth year, if not before, the personification of these two names for destruction and mutability, with a kind of loathing of both, was one of his fixed habits of thought. The passages start out from the two poems so prominently, and, with all Shakespeare's art of weaving them in, have such a character of bold irrelevancy to any real necessities of the mere stories in which they are inserted, that one feels they are there because Shakespeare was determined that they should be." (David Masson. Shakespeare Personally. London: Smith, Elder & Co.)